GARDENING: The grass roots of New Gardening

Praised for his inovation, Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf is the talk of the contemporary pros. Mary Keen wasn't convinced - until she payed him a visit
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The Independent Culture
THE WINDS of change are blowing over the nation's favourite pastime. Young designers have had it with Sissinghurst, Hidcote or Rosemary Verey's Barnsley. They like abstract lines better than formal ones, prefer grasses to flowers, and tend to base what they do on large-scale natural effects, rather than on highly cultivated traditional layouts. The modern tendency to island beds the size of small continents fills me with gloom, especially when they contain a very few low care plants, and whispering grasses. I had to go to Holland to discover that New Gardening can be an inspiration, and that grasses may not be as impossible to manage as I thought they were.

Piet Oudolf, a Dutch nurseryman and designer, has been the talk of the pros for the last year or so. New naturalistic gardeners praise his use of grasses, the scale of his planting and the range of perennials that he has personally selected. It sounded as though a trip to Piet's own garden was a must, because it would highlight the influences filtering through to modern English gardens.

The weather helped. On a golden autumn afternoon, three of us set off on bicycles from the village of Hummelo near Arnhem. Five kilometres of pedalling on flat traffic-free tracks with the sun on your back would put anyone in a good mood for garden visiting. When we arrived we found billows of high farm hedges surrounding a rectangle of garden in front of a gabled brick house with white shutters. The first impression was of many solid shapes of yew, stock still, between fountains of grasses that never stopped erupting. Because it was late in the year, colours were subdued: there was a lot of brown from seed heads but dots of red kept the garden from looking too dead. I suspect that at first we were all looking for different things and that each of us in turn found what we wanted - enough atmosphere and sense of place to satisfy me. A variety of plants (some of which none of us had seen before) to occupy Beth who trained at Kew, and for Kirsty, the artist, some extraordinary shapes and textures. Later, as we toured the garden with Oudolf we began to appreciate his highly organised and far from naturalistic approach.

He believes in using a restricted palette of plants: each border is conceived as a whole. Apart from yew and box, which are used as clipped accents, shrubs are rare. Perennials are his paints. These he often repeats, but never to the point of boredom. Certain forms recur: spikes, balls, cones and flat tiers of flowers are set against the plumes of different grasses. Bold groups are used to punctuate a bed, Eupatoriums in one place, hostas in another, but I suspect that his plant knowledge would prevent any of his schemes from becoming too formulaic. A plant has to have "good structure", "good texture" and be "good in death", to earn a place in an Oudolf border. Good structure means strong form and no need to stake. Beefy perennials stalk the garden. Picture a palette of man-sized, flat-topped umbellifers, large daisies, fountains of grasses and firebrands of polygonums and you get some idea of the drama of an Oudolf planting. Think of flowers that you thought you were bored by, like Echinacea (the cone flower with pink daisies) and imagine it in greenish white. Thalictrum 'Hewitt's Double', a filigreed rue with tiny purple flowers is a connoisseur's favourite, Thalictrum rochebrunnianum is even taller and more desirable and hardly known over here. The thrill of seeing new forms of familiar plants was repeated everywhere in the garden. There are Achilleas more than a metre high, in terracotta reds, rather than the pastel shaded numbers that we know, a monkshood, 10ft tall (Aconitum episcopali), recently introduced from China, late daisies in orange brown (Helenium 'Flammendes Katchen'), a sunflower with willow leaves (Helianthus salicifolius), enormous bergamots 'Monardas Cherokee' and 'Comanche', Selinum wallichianum like a foaming cow parsley, angelicas, especially a giant form, gigas, with stems and flowers tinged red. This is Alice in Wonderland territory where the people have shrunk and the plants seem to have doubled in size.

With half hardies Piet Oudolf never bothers. Plants have to survive colder winters than ours. Seed heads and grasses, heavy with cobwebs or dewdrops, or alive with small birds, can furnish a garden as well as flowers. All through the winter, plant-ghosts shimmer in the garden. Light plays, wind rustles over the grasses and if in some leaden-skied days it all seems too brown and wet, when the sun comes out all the dead lilies are gilded again. Movement is a great feature, so too is a sense that everything changes. Even in late autumn there is promise in the air. It is a garden of dynamic effect which could not have been made without the exceptional knowledge and vision of its creator. When he designs for those who know nothing about gardens Oudolf gives them something simpler.

The triumph of his complex plot is the sense of grandeur and space achieved in less than an acre. This is helped by the solid blocks of evergreen that provide a background for the pyrotechnics of the plants. In a nursery plot behind the house he and his wife, Anja, sell the varieties that amazed and surprised us in the garden.

I fear Piet Oudolf's garden must be seen to be believed. Before I went, several people had tried to describe it, but even the most eloquent failed to convey the combination of exuberance and restraint. If the pilgrimage to Hummelo is hard to arrange, the consolation is that the first Oudolf garden here should be no mean substitute. John Coke of Green Farm Plants, and one of our best specialist nurserymen, has commissioned his friend to design a garden for him at Bury Court near Farnham, where the nursery is based. After one season it already looks promising. It is top of my list for a visit and the chance to buy more Oudolf plants than you can carry on a bicycle.

! Piet Oudolf, Broekstraat 17, 6999 DE Hummelo, The Netherlands; open from April to November, Tues-Sat, 10am-4pm (00 31 31438 1120). Green Farm Plants, Bury Court, Bentley, Farnham, Surrey GU10 5LZ; open from mid-March to autumn; Wed-Sat, 10am-6pm (01420 23202)